I got an email the other day from Paul Z. in Connecticut. Paul has been one of my brother Phil’s best friends since they were kids, and he wrote to object to my recent characterization of my father as “a hard case.”
“I know he was a bit stiff,” Paul writes, “but he was always decent to me and the rest of your brothers’ friends, and he took my ribbing him pretty well. I don’t know that he was that dogmatic. I saw him in lots of situations where he was upset by various things his kids were going through, and he wasn’t always that hard a case and, indeed, was vulnerable.
“I know he took interest in all of his sons and worried about them and also tried to take positive action to help them succeed in life. He was as straight as an arrow, but he liked and appreciated golf, music and reading annual reports. He was also generous, and he and your mother often offered to include me in your family’s events.”
Paul said my dad wasn’t “that hard to get through to,” and that I should “try to see him through other people’s eyes. Maybe that way you will realize you both would have enjoyed each other’s company more and more if his life hadn’t been cut off so short. That thought doesn’t have to be something to lament, but rather to take pleasure in what would inevitably have happened. ”
Each time I read Paul’s note, I discover something else I like, something to be grateful for. I love, for example, that he teased my father. I’ve done the same with other people’s fathers, but never with my own, and learning this seems to complete a circle. Ribbing is one of the few ways that males express fondness for each other, and it warms me to think that my father, so remote and Olympian in my mind, had that experience.
I told Paul that there had been some ugly stuff between my father and me, and that I thought I’d let go of it intellectually. However, “the emotions are sometimes slow to follow. But I’m not walking around with a chip on my shoulder….”
I also told him I was amazed to discover that my three youngest brothers seemed to have had a different father than the one I knew. One who was supportive and understanding, and less prone to use force. One summer when I was home for a visit, my father came downstairs one Saturday evening wearing plaid pants, a pale yellow shirt, tie and a green sport coat.
Brother Phil looked up and said, “Ah, yes, clothes DO make the man.”
To my amazement, Dad grinned. Things were, indeed, different. I could never have said such a thing.
And yet on another summer visit, we were all at the dinner table and my youngest brother, Jeff, was ragging me fiercely. While everyone watched, I calmly loaded my spoon with orange sherbet, held the handle firmly and flicked the spoon backward.
The sherbet caught Jeff squarely in the forehead.
It was a breach of decorum that when I was a kid would have outraged my father, but that night he laughed with everyone else. Perfect timing, and justice had been served.
One summer I was driving back from the Outer Banks with brother Dave after a family gathering. Listening to “Henry,” a sweet, evocative cut on Keb Mo’s “Slow Down” CD which features a steel guitar, I commented”Dad would have liked this song.”
Dave started, as if shocked by a live wire. Not that he disagreed, I think, but the sentiment surprised him. Dad was such a powerful figure in our lives, that mentioning him triggered a rainbow of conflicting emotions.
I reminded him that when we were kids, Dad sang Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” while giving us a bath, proof that deep inside this neo-Victorian lurked a soulful, if unrequited, man.
What I’m most grateful for is Paul’s suggestion that if Dad were alive, we would “inevitably” have enjoyed each other. I hadn’t thought in those terms, and I value it for the wisdom from which the suggestion springs. Indeed, if this life is just the beginning, and our existence continues beyond this realm, perhaps relationships do, too.
A few months ago, I dreamed I walked down a hallway and looked into an empty room. There wasn’t much in it — just a bed and a table. But what I do recall vividly was a large, luminous light form from which came a warm, loving glow.
When I awoke, I felt without question that I had been allowed to visit my father on “the other side,” and that whatever his issues when he died at 59, he had cleaned things up and moved on. I’m grateful to Paul Z. for reminding me to do the same.
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